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Alone around the world

By August Heckscher / September 16, 1983



This summer at the printing office we have been preparing a rather wonderful edition of the sixteenth-century classic, Sebastian Brandt's ''Shyp of Fooles.'' The title rings in my mind as I set out alone in my small craft to circumnavigate the Great Harbor of Mount Desert. Why should I be doing the arduous chores of getting away from the mooring, and tending the sheets and halyards, and making the tricky landfall - all this entirely by myself, when I could so often profit from a helping hand and when a single misstep could plunge me irretrievably into the icy sea?

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It is pleasant to have a friend on board. So long as he or she is content to play the role of first mate and does not aspire to the prerogatives of captaincy - and provided, too, that the same he or she does not insist on discoursing upon matters too profound - the companionship can be agreeable and the discreet performance of duties most relieving. Indeed, there are one or two such sea-friends whom, if I could conjure up, I would in any weather prefer having for crew than my foolish self.

Pleasant, also, is a young lad especially hired for the job. In other summers I have found youths of rare qualities to row my dinghy and haul up my sails; but a promising recruit was tempted this year by better pay on land, and the best of them go off to school or college while the winds still blow merrily across autumnal waters.

So one deals with the situation as one can; and one discovers there are many delights in sailing alone. To be absolute master of one's vessel is always invigorating. The smallest and most simply rigged sailboat requires promptitude in the execution of each maneuver. It requires a constant presence of mind. A snagged line, a winch handle out of place, can spell disaster if a squall blows up; or failure to know precisely where one is means that one is lost when a sudden fog rolls in. Even when the seas are calm and the winds slack, one can get into a surprising amount of trouble by doing things carelessly or in the wrong order.

Being alone one takes notice, besides, of every element in the surroundings. The clouds in the sky are closely observed, and each point of land is noted as if seen for the first time. Such precautions have their rewards in heightened senses and fresh apprehensions of interest or beauty. I never sail around the world alone - my world of coves and islands, of reefs and shifting mountains - without feeling myself part of a past recalled in tales and legends. Here is Bunker's Ledge where an old sea captain, in dalliance it is said with a lady of the town, came scandalously to grief. Here is the promontory where Champlain wrecked his ship on first approaching the fabulous island of bare rocks and towering cliffs.

A mournful atmosphere hangs over the meadow at the juncture of the great bay and our only American fjord. The open stretch of field is unexpected, where all the rest of the circling shores are spruce-bordered. It was undoubtedly the brightness of its expanse and the presence of its wildflowers that entranced a group of French Jesuits to set up a colony here in the eighteenth century. The faithless Indians betrayed them to the British, who sent a fleet from Virginia to lie concealed behind a nearby island. They descended at dawn upon their unfortunate victims in a massacre that still seems to leave its stain upon the landscape.

Within his allegorical ''Shyp'' Brandt placed a number of fools that might be said to be all represented by the mariner that ventures forth in his small craft alone. There is the fool that despises wisdom and philosophy; the fool that will not beware of misfortune; the fool that utters ''unprofytable and vayne prayers.'' I react most strongly to his reference to ''old fooles: the Longer they Live the more they are given to Folly.'' Nevertheless, I expect I shall continue in my course undaunted. The other day I set sail on a windless sea, but presently the breeze came up, and in that hour there was such a glory revealed to me as the well-crewed vessel will never find or enjoy.